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Advanced Nuclear Can Make Gasoline Out of Water

The Problem


The international transport sector consumes 20% of total global energy, and it is almost entirely powered by fossil fuels, thereby contributing significantly to global carbon emissions.  There are no technological prospects that show any demonstrable signs of materially changing this construct quickly enough to mitigate the deleterious effects that transport energy has on climate change.


Transport fuels consist entirely of hydrocarbons.  These are formulations of the elements hydrogen and carbon.  Hydrogen and carbon are plentiful elements in nature, however they are locked into other chemical formulations that do not allow them to be easily separated or reformed. After decades of exhaustive research, it is a fact that petroleum is still, by far, the lowest-cost and lowest-emission input for the production of transport fuels.


In order to separate and/or reform hydrogen or carbon, a great deal of power is required, primarily in the form of heat.  To-date, the only reliable method for generating these quantities and temperatures of heat is through fossil fuel combustion. Combusting fossil fuels to create hydrocarbons clearly defeats the purpose, and would not have a positive impact on carbon emissions.


The Solution


Many Generation-IV advanced nuclear reactor systems are designed to be high-temperature systems, and they have the capability of delivering extremely high-quality and high-temperature industrial heat.  These systems, as with all nuclear power systems, have ultra-low carbon emissions on a life cycles basis.  The life cycle emissions of civilian nuclear power has been estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be 12 grams CO2-eq/kWh, which is approximately one-quarter of the life cycle emissions of solar power, and approximately equal to wind power and hydro power.


These advanced nuclear reactors systems also have the promise of generating power cost-competitively with fossil fuels.  This is a critical factor for widespread industrial adoption, and it is a critical factor for the economic feasibility of synthetic transport fuels.


Does this sound like a “Back To The Future” storyline? In the words of Doc Brown, let me show you how it works:


Production Infrastructure


All the technologies required to make gasoline from water are proven technologies and can be built and integrated today.  A facility would require the following discrete components:


High-Temperature Steam Electrolysis (HTSE) hydrogen fabrication, a proprietary technology, developed by the US Department of Energy, which produces industrial hydrogen using no other input than water.



Direct Air Capture system, a proprietary technology, developed by Carbon Engineering Corp, for the purpose of sequestering carbon, using inputs of air and benign, closed-cycle chemistry.



Fischer-Tropsch and associated chemical processing facilities for the rendition of Hydrogen and Carbon into fuels, including aviation fuel, gasoline and diesel.


Integral Molten Salt Reactor, a proprietary technology, developed by Terrestrial Energy, for the purpose of generating sufficient quantities and temperatures of industrial heat to power the above three facilities.



Global Impact


The global transport sector’s ongoing use of fossil fuel combustion for motive power represents a significant source of carbon emissions.  There is no evidence, nor any expert opinion, that would suggest that this practice will abate in time to mitigate catastrophic climate change.  The global fleet of 1.3 billion ICE vehicles, 25,000 civilian aircraft, and 52,000 marine vessels cannot be electrified by 2050 to any significant degree.


Rather than replace the entire global fleet of transport equipment, a practicable solution is to seamlessly substitute petroleum-based fuels with water-based fuels that are carbon-neutral, and comparable in price. The consumer would not notice any difference.  Adoption of this technology would decrease carbon emissions by 10 million metric tonnes per plant per year (64,000 barrels of fuel per day) – the equivalent of 2.1 million cars worth of CO2emissions.  Furthermore, fuel price volatility could be forever eliminated, dramatically lowering the economic risk placed upon global economies that are deeply impacted by variations in fuel costs.


Synthetic transport fuels are a critical, world-saving technology that must be adopted in the absence of any other technological solutions.  The technological readiness is very high, and capital costs are relatively low.  This solution can be adopted extremely quickly and deployed on a global scale with relative ease.

Canon Bryan's picture

Thank Canon for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 15, 2018

Canon, because both share similar balance-of-plant steam systems, in 2016 the Chinese began an ambitious plan to convert some of the country's coal plants to gas-cooled nuclear plants. About that time I learned of Carbon Technologies's carbon-from-air efforts - and simultaneously, the plight of U.S. coal workers was making big news. Could carbon-from-air, hydrogen-from water, and closed coal plants be the recipe for a way to generate carbon-neutral fuel and reinvigorate a local economy?

I had a discussion with Geoff Holmes, Director of Business Development at Carbon Technologies, about how the marketing of the idea might work. The biggest obstacle, he told me, would likely not be technological but political (CT is a Canadian company). His company was making money synthesizing additives for refineries - basically, upping the octane of existing fuels. Though the process doesn't replace fossil fuels, by adding more hydrocarbon bonds using atmospheric carbon CT could "supercharge" them without drawing more carbon from the ground.

Renewables activists often attempt to portray the baseload characteristic of nuclear as a limitation. But by generating fuel using reclaimed carbon and hydrogen when electricity demand is low, it would be possible to provide energy for both electric and internal-combustion transportation with net zero carbon emissions - 24/7/365.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on November 15, 2018

Comment from a LI member - 

Alvia Gaskill, Jr.

Alvia Gaskill, Jr.  1st degree connection1stPresident at Environmental Reference Materials, Inc., Environmental Testing, Expert Witness, Peer Review, Global Warming

An interesting blending of developing technologies, including that of the article writer's.  He assumes BEVs will be a bust and that low carbon fuels (probably methanol and not gasoline) can be produced from DAC CO2 and H2 from water.  Although the DAC people propose making methanol, the cost of doing so is currently prohibitive as is that of DAC itself.  I also thought the molten salt reactors were to be used to produce electricity.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 15, 2018

Alvia, in 2007 MIT's Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES) published An Alternative to Gasoline: Synthetic Fuels from Nuclear Hydrogen and Captured CO2, which claimed 650 nuclear reactors would be able to provide 100% of U.S. liquid fuel by churning out carbon-neutral synthetic methanol. Generating H2 was the easy part; capturing CO2 was more involved. But with the availability of cheap uranium there's nothing to suggest the cost would remain prohibitive.

Idaho National Laboratory's Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program was working with HTGR production of H2, but was suspended in 2013. Why?

"NGNP prelicensing interactions began in 2006 and were suspended in 2013 after DOE decided in 2011 not to proceed into the detailed design and license application phases of the NGNP Project. DOE's decision cited impasses between DOE and the NGNP Industry Alliance in cost sharing arrangements for the public-private partnership required by Congress."

Between the lines: "Fossil fuel interests sensed a threat to their core profit stream. So they killed nuclear synthetic fuel by their preferred method: tie it up in NRC review." I hear this again, and again. And again.

Grid-scale molten salt reactors have proven to be a tough nut to crack. Though the 1960s-era MSRE at Oak Ridge was considered a success, materials durability issues from their high operating temperature persist. Also, reliably separating transuranics / xenon from the salt, and moderator durability, remain challenges.

Canon Bryan's picture
Canon Bryan on December 3, 2018

Thanks for this, Bob.

I suspect the NGNP Alliance failed because they couldn't get the CAPEX of HGTRs below $13/Watt. That is not close to being economic. Terrestrial Energy's IMSR CAPEX is projected to be <$3/Watt.

With respect to materials issues, Terrestrial Energy's IMSR elegantly solves these issues by having a replaceable reactor core with a limited lifetime. The life of the replaceable core is 7 years -- not long enough to encounter materials issues.

Canon Bryan's picture
Canon Bryan on December 3, 2018

Thanks for this, Alvia.

I am not suggesting that electrification of transport will be a bust. Not at all. I am merely suggesting that it will take too long to have a meaningful impact on climate change. A bridging solution is sorely needed.

Any high-temperature reactors, like MSRs, can be used for industrial heat power, or electricity, or both, in a CHP formulation. The heat can be used to make the H2, the C, and it can power the chemical processing to make hydrocarbons. That is the main thesis of my article.

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